FutureFlight Revisited

Sept. 8, 2001


Update of a NASA/FAA initiative to bring technology to planning

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

September 2001

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — In our January/February 2000 issue, we featured the unveiling of NASA’s FutureFlight Central in our cover story, entitled "Virtual Planning." We recently revisited the research facility for an update. Current projects involve runway incursions at LAX and projections of a new runway at SFO, and involve airport management, airlines, controllers, pilots, FAA, and NASA.

The FutureFlight Central facility is the airport from a control tower’s perspective, able to take what is the view of the airport and its operations today and project onto its screens what can be tomorrow. It can also be used to make what is today safer.
It is housed in a government-as-usual building — like much of NASA, one cannot tell the level of sophistication that lies within — at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
The first floor looks much like a flight training facility, with quaint computer stations and a small class area. Upstairs is the tower, which when running can simulate a lifelike reproduction of any airfield’s activity, whether actual or proposed. It is here that one first gets the sense of the scope of this creation.

What an Airport Can Expect
FutureFlight Central operations manager Nancy Dorighi outlines what it takes to work with the facility to study an individual airport ...

"We’ve done projects for as low as $50,000 and as high as $400,000," she says. "It just depends on whether we’re building the airport model from the ground up, whether we’re doing a lot of days of simulation. Once the model’s built, to come back and repeat or maybe do a different test using the same 3-D database and scenarios would be very minimal. You’ve already done the up front work"
Dorighi estimates that the modeling for the simulation accounts for half the overall project cost.
An airport provides a CAD model, which gives the layout of the airport, accurate dimensions for buildings and runways, etc., says Dorighi. "We would also go to the airport and take high resolution photographs, and would probably ask the airport to provide us with aerial photography, if they had it," she says.
"We have a contract in place for vendors to provide us with the 3-D database. We assemble all these materials and have the vendor build us a 3-D model. That takes about 2 months."
Airports provide arrival/departure and ground activity, and then work with NASA at coordinating pilots and controllers for the actual simulation. The airport then defines the scope of the project.

But there is more to it. The potential for success in FutureFlight Central is the human interaction that interfaces with the technology. There are live pilots; live controllers inputting and reacting as the environment around them unfolds. All of that is then collected and recorded. It is not technology for its own sake, says Nancy Dorighi, the facility’s manager of operations.
"We call it a national resource," says Dorighi. "We’re still trying to convince people of the value of doing human interactive simulation.
"It’s a way to really have more than a realistic assessment of some change that you’re considering, because now you’re including the human and all the voice communication and workload issues that are part of anything an airport might be considering. But it’s also a way to get the buy-in of the end-users, the people that will be impacted by the decisions that are being made.
"I think we’re in the formative years; we’re still trying to get the word out and educate the public. This is the next level of simulation. The industry has never had anything like this before. It’s a new tech for them to use. It was built with taxpayer funds; it’s available. It’s really something that individual airports and airlines couldn’t afford to have put together themselves."

Two of the major projects underway for 2001 at FutureFlight Central are addressing two of the major issues in the industry today: runway incursions and the impact of new runways and configurations on capacity.
Los Angeles World Airports is working with NASA officials at how different procedures and/or a new taxiway can positively impact runway incursions at LA International Airport (LAX). At San Francisco Internation-al Airport (SFO), the challenge is runway configurations and a potential new runway that would run into South Bay. SFO is looking for FutureFlight Central to provide realistic data on how different alternatives will affect capacity and safety.
Explains Dorighi, "San Francisco Airport was a visualization study only. It was really phase one of what they intend to do in the long run. Their plan to expand the airport is what prompted it.
"They gave us the design for one of the configurations of the new runway in the bay; it’s a relocated runway. We modeled that in our 3-D environment, and worked out arrivals and departures that would look realistic, and then let their controllers and people from their development office and the local FAA come and view the airport from five candidate tower locations.
"The thinking is they may have to build a new tower to manage the traffic with the new runway configuration. We showed it to them in different weather conditions: the typical San Francisco fog; day and dusk; the east flow and the west flow. We went through a real systematic matrix of conditions and tower locations to help them narrow down their decisionmaking."
At LAX, NASA has been working on phases one and two of its project to study runway incursions. As with any study, the initial work involves collecting the data, photography, and resources (including pilots and controllers) needed to implement the next step — introducing alternatives.
FutureFlight Central’s Boris Rabin, directing the LAX project, has worked on NASA simulations for missions to the moon and Mars. He has been involved with the facility since its concept stage six years ago.
Explains Rabin, "Phase one was quite successful. Our main objective was to achieve a level of relief from the controllers workload, and we were able to do that.
"The main challenge in that was to produce the heaviest traffic during the peak arrival and departure times. We are trying to reproduce the same traffic, and that way provide the controllers a similar environment as the real tower situation.
"Based on their knowledge of the situation, they came up with some ideas on how they can change operations at the airport to reduce the incursion rate.
"We’re talking about 160 operations per hour. In order to simulate this traffic realistically, we had to have pilots proficient enough with the software, who know communications that pilots and controllers would know, who know the LAX layout. So, it took us about a month and a half to train pilots to be able to handle that.
"In the end, I think we were able to give controllers, with the help of the pilots, that level of reality in this environment so that they could tell it was as close to real as possible."
According to Dorighi, NASA has begun another project that will be directed at surface management at airports. "NASA has a contract which they’ve issued to a team of vendors headed by Raytheon to develop a surface management system," she says. "It will involve automation tools and probably some new technologies that will enable better management and control of movement on the surface of the airport. It’s going to be tested at DFW; it’s just a prototype. It will be tested in our facility, FutureFlight Central, first to work out the display concepts and interface issues."